Matthew Butt

Experience report: running the 7digital Technical Academy

Posted in programming by bnathyuw on 20 November 2015

Between September 2014 and April 2015 I ran 7digital’s Technical Academy: a half-year training scheme to give a new cohort of software developers a grounding in software craftsmanship. Here are a few thoughts on how it went.

Choosing candidates

Our four participants came from diverse backgrounds: two were graduate recruits, one with a degree in Forensic Biology, the other in Physics. One internal participant was a member of our QA team, while the other joined us from the Client Relations team. Three of them were women.

We explicitly opened the external vacancies to candidates with non-Computer Science backgrounds, and this gave us access to a more diverse field of candidates. We wanted candidates who had shown an interest in software development, but didn’t demand any industry experience: programming a spreadsheet to analyse coursework data, working with Access databases in a summer job, or creating a personal website could all be evidence of this interest.

At 7digital, the technical test is to pair programme on a software kata. The usual aim is to assess the candidate’s aptitude for TDD, and to see how well they work with another person. We used the same test for our Technical Academy candidates, but were fully aware that they were unlikely to have any TDD experience. Instead, we used this as an opportunity to find out how quickly they could pick up these techniques. At the beginning of the 45-minute exercise, I took a fairly directive role as Navigator: explaining what a unit test was, how an assertion worked, and telling the candidate what to type. By the end of the session, our successful candidates had demonstrated that they had picked up all the key concepts, and were capable of writing new tests with much less direction. This aptitude for learning was the most important quality we sought in our candidates.

Joining a team

Each participant joined one of the development teams, where they were expected to pair with a more experienced developer from the beginning. In addition, we ran several learning sessions a week, and expected them to work on a personal project over the six months of the academy. We suggested that they divide their time between academy and team work roughly 50:50.

New recruits at 7digital are assigned a Mentor, who has a pastoral role, catching up with them frequently and helping them settle in. We arranged Mentors for our two new joiners, and all four participants were also assigned a Tutor, whose role was to help with with any immediate technical issues during the academy, particularly in the project work.

Learning sessions

We organised a range of learning sessions, and implemented a pull system, choosing topics to address questions that had recently arisen during the participants’ project and team work. We met every Monday morning to finalise that week’s sessions, and to start planning for the following week. Apart from keeping a list of potential topics, we didn’t plan further than two weeks ahead.

Some of the sessions were hands-on practical exercises. At the beginning of the academy, we got the participants into the habit of TDD by running mob programming kata sessions: I would sit with the four of them around a computer, and they would pass the keyboard around in 5 minute sessions. As questions arose, we would sit back from the keyboard to discuss them. I introduced programming concepts and features of the IDE (Visual Studio with ReSharper) as we went along, so they could become familiar with running tests, elemental refactoring shortcuts and so forth.

Some of the sessions were more theoretical, and we enlisted colleagues to give talks and demonstrations of topics where they had particular expertise. Initially I took responsibility for organising this, but as our participants’ confidence and familiarity with their colleagues grew, I handed responsibility for this over to them.

Near the end of the course we ran some presentation sessions: one on the SOLID Principles and a couple on Design Patterns. Each of the participants chose a principle or a pattern and gave a short presentation to the others explaining it (I pitched in and gave a presentation on the Liskov Substitution Principle so as to make up the numbers). Some of the participants were rather nervous about doing their first presentation, but the results were impressive, and it was great to see their confidence boost once we had run these sessions.

Finally, we arranged a weekly reading group. During the first three weeks I led the group in a discussion of chapters 13–15 of Eliyahu Goldratt’s *The Goal*, which give the participants an accessible introduction to the Theory of Constraints, which underlies much of the Kanban methodology. After this, they started reading Bob Martin’s *Clean Code*, and soon told me that they were happy to continue these sessions without me. The approach of discussion one or two chapters each week seemed to work very successfully, as they could engage properly with the issues.

The project

The project was a key focus of the participants’ learning. We sought ideas from colleagues across the company, and then let the participants choose a project. The person who had suggested the project acted as client, and was expected to be available to answer any questions, and to come along to demos to see how the work was progressing. Tutors were also expected to help out and give guidance.

We emphasised iterative development in the projects, encouraging our participants to get a walking skeleton running and deployed to a server on the network through our CI server (TeamCity) as soon as possible. Only then did we suggest they start fleshing out functionality. We also stressed the importance of doing TDD from the start. This approach front-loaded many of the difficulties in the projects: participants found it hard work to get going, but once they had a deployed project, they found they could pick up speed in their work.

We arranged frequent demos in which the participants could show off the progress they were making in their projects, and get feedback from their Clients and the rest of the academy.

Unlike in their team work, where pair programming was usual, much of the project work was done solo. There was a fantastic moment of revelation about a month before the final demonstrations, when it became clear that several of the participants were struggling with technical issues, and were worried whether they would be able to complete their projects in time. I suggested that rather than working solo, they work together in rotating pairs to solve these problems. At our next catch-up they reported that they had solved the problems and made more progress in those short pairing sessions than they had in the previous weeks’ solo work. For our participants to learn first-hand the value of pair programming less than six months into their careers was wonderful.

What worked

  • We found fantastic recruits and excellent internal candidates.
  • Pull learning was very successful.
  • The projects gave a good context for learning.
  • The participants developed an excellent team spirit and ability to self-organise.
  • The focus on XP and Software Craftsmanship skills equipped the participants with skills that are lacked by many developers with many more years’ experience: we created four exceptional software developers.

What didn’t work as well

  • Having a Client for each project worked better in theory than in practice; some didn’t even attend the demos.
  • Participants sometimes had difficulty getting a good balance between team work and Technical Academy work, and there were weeks in which their projects got no attention.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat. It was an amazing experience, and seeing the quality of our graduates is incredibly gratifying. I have now left 7digital, but there is a new Technical Academy kicking off as I write this, led by one of last year’s cohort. I wish them the very best of luck!


Edited on 20 Nov 2015 at 15:04 to mention the presentation sessions.